'I Will Not Live In Fear'-- A story of cancer survivorship and hope by Dan Easterling

THRIVEnet Story of the Month - July 1997

A story of one man's fight with cancer, how he survived and turned adversity into an opportunity for personal growth.

I was diagnosed with germ cell cancer in my chest in March, 1991. The tumor had grown as large as a football and mashed down most of my right lung. It was found when my regular doctor ordered a lung x-ray because I could not get rid of a cold that had developed into pneumonia. The doctor had no idea what it was, except it was huge. They took a biopsy two days later. I had a 102 degree fever and pneumonia. While they had me under they also installed a catheter. I woke up groggy, hurting, and with numerous tubes running out of me.

It took the doctors a week to discover exactly what it was. When they did my oncologist announced that I had a 50-50 chance of living or dying. After a week of massive intravenous doses of antibiotics to get over the pneumonia, I started chemotherapy. The first course went well, very minimal sickness. They sent me home for two weeks until the next course of chemo. Three days later my hair fell out. I became a physical wreck, hardly able to make it up the three stairs into my house. Before, running a mile was virtually no effort.

The second course of chemo was a little worse. My weight started to drop and I was sick much of the time. By the third course of chemo my weight was down from 235 pounds to 190. This time I nearly died a few times. I passed out frequently from low blood pressure due to difficulty eating or drinking.

I was only out of the hospital two days after the third course when I returned due to complications--severe ulceration of the mouth and throat. It was necessary for me to take Demerol by intravenous drip because I couldn't stand anything in my mouth.

During that hospital stay, I reached the end of my rope. Before this I had begged God to make all of the pain and fear not true. One bright sunny afternoon when I was by myself, I looked up and said "I can't take anymore, God. If I am not going to survive, let it end here!" At that moment something happened that I still can't explain, but I knew that I was going to be OK. I started feeling better. All physical indicators showed improvement. Within a few days I began another course of chemotherapy.

The last course was no problem. I wasn't as sick, I started to eat a little, and felt a little better. By this time, tests indicated that I would make it, even though all of the tumor didn't go away. This meant chest surgery to remove what was left of it.

The day after labor day, 1991, a team of surgeons sawed open my chest and removed the last of the tumor. They forgot to medicate (the stuff to relax one, not the anesthesia) me before the surgery, but it did not scare me at all. I did fine and went home in 6 days, which is almost unprecedented for that type of surgery.

Five weeks later I returned to my job as an auto mechanic. The hard part of the story, however, begins here. The time I had for reflection while sick convinced me that there was something better for me. I had always been smart, but had never applied myself. I looked at my life as it had been and knew I wanted to improve it. I decided I wanted to go back to school. My wife of 12 years did not want this to happen. Our fighting commenced.

I went after it. I applied to go back to school in Spring, 1992. The first thing my wife did was take me off of all our joint bank accounts, just to add to my difficulty I guess. She did this even though four years earlier I had sacrificed moving on to better job to support her attainment of a nursing degree. Also, while she was in school, I moved her mother into our home to help her due to a financial problem.

My first semester back I made a 4.0 while still working a 30 hour week and fighting on the home front. I also had another health problem. The last week of school, I had appendicitis and stayed in the hospital another 8 days. The summer semester, I took two classes while working a 40 hour week and made a 4.0 again.

During this time, I fought a holding action at home. During the chemotherapy treatments I realized I had not been the husband I should have been. I had planned to have a heart-to-heart talk with my wife the day she informed me that I was no longer on our bank accounts. When she informed of this, however, I knew that our marriage would not last long. In the middle of July she asked for a divorce. She filed the papers on my birthday in August. The divorce was granted in October.

From March, 1991, till October, 1992, I was diagnosed with cancer, had intensive chemotherapy, been cut open, started back to school, had appendicitis, and been divorced. On top of this a dog we had since our second year of marriage was getting old and in ill health. My ex-wife met a man and remarried in July, 1993. She called and informed me that I could come get the dog or she would take him the next day and put him down. Needless to say, I got the dog. I begged my landlady to let me keep him and she agreed. However, he was in such bad health that I had to put him down anyway. After all the other losses in the previous year this was almost too much to bear.

Looking back on it, I am amazed I survived, but I did. The main thing that enabled me to survive was my stubborn streak. I clearly recall the only reason I did not die was that I was just too stubborn to give up (a trait that I had been roundly damned for most of my life.) I simply would not give up and die when it would have been very easy to do. Additionally, all of the things that I had allowed to hold me back from achieving in the past fell away. I knew that whatever I undertook after I survived would go well. After I survived I would not give in to bitterness and hate, even though I wanted to desperately. I was given a second chance and determined to live my life to its limits.

I continued in school and received my BA in criminal justice with a 3.75 grade point average. I immediately went into the master's program with a scholarship and finished that in a year. During this time I made two academic trips out of the country, one in Mexico for a month, and the other in England for seven weeks.

In the spring of 1995 I applied to a Ph.D. program in Political Economy at the University of Texas at Dallas, received an instructorship, started the program September, 1995. I will finish it December, 1998.

From the earlier part of the story, one could guess that I might be bitter and unhappy. I did go through that stage, but am now profoundly happy. Cancer took many things from me, but what I have gained is so much greater I now say it was the best thing that ever happened to me.

What did the experience give me?

  • It changed a frightened little boy (at 32 years of age at the beginning of this) to an extremely self-confident man.
  • Before cancer I never challenged myself to reach my limits, now its my common mode of operation.
  • Before cancer I would not and could not speak in public, now I do it for a living (teach).
  • I know myself at a level few people achieve and I have a sense of peace that is unshakable.
  • Before cancer I despised going to work, now I can't wait to get up and hit the books, go to class, research, and teach.
  • Cancer has allowed me to do away with all of the crap we are all programmed with and let me be me.
  • Cancer has allowed me to create relationships with a depth and character to them that I never had before. It also gave me an extraordinarily accurate bs detector.
  • Cancer made me more loving, while at the same time gave me a hard side that is not afraid of anything or anybody--kind of like a built in protective gorilla that comes out when it needs to.
  • Cancer also created huge opposites in me, I love a peaceful day, but am not afraid to get in conflict if need be. I enjoy my time alone, but also dearly love spending time with friends. I am extremely patient, but can be very impatient if necessary. I am cynical, but I believe people are basically good.

I have had tremendous support from my sister, her husband and two children as well as some friends who are now priceless.

I am cured and over the five year hump. I still go for a yearly checkup, but am finally out of the tunnel of fear that most patients live in.

I will not live my life in fear.

Dan Easterling
©1997 All rights reserved.

You can reach Dan at eastrlng@utdallas.edu.

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